Know Ohio: Underground Railroad

Next week marks the beginning of February, which is designated as Black History Month. In the United States, part of that history includes slavery, as we discussed earlier in the show. But African Americans bravely rebelled against the practice, and risked their lives to escape their captors. Up next, Know Ohio correspondent Mary Fecteau tells us about the Buckeye State’s key role in one of the most well-known networks of escape.

As Americans, we have so many things in our past to be proud of – strong leaders, a history of innovation, and spirited people. But our history also includes some shameful practices – and perhaps the worst was slavery. Many states, both North and South, practiced slavery at one time, but by the 1800’s, the practice was restricted to Southern states, where millions of people of African descent were bought and sold, and spent their lives serving their captors.      

But the Underground Railroad provided slaves a way out. Interestingly, the Underground Railroad was neither underground, nor a railroad. Rather, it was a network of secret routes and safe houses set up by abolitionists – or people who opposed slavery. 

Although there were Underground Railroad networks throughout the country, Ohio had the most active network of any other state. As a free state sharing a border on the Ohio River with slave states Kentucky and Virginia, Ohio’s location made it an ideal escape route – and many Ohioans were steadfast abolitionists who offered their own homes as safe houses for slaves.     

One such abolitionist was Minister John Rankin, of Ripley, Ohio, whose home stood on a hill that overlooked the Ohio River. Rankin would signal fugitive slaves in Kentucky with a lantern and let them know when it was safe for them to cross the river. Rankin helped about 2,000 slaves escape, and is immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Other famous Ohio Underground Railroad conductors include a Cincinnati Quaker, Levi Coffin, and John Rankin’s neighbor in Ripley, John Parker, a free black man.  

At its peak, the Underground Railroad ushered one thousand slaves per year to freedom and many of the Underground Railroad stops are still around today. In Cincinnati there’s even a museum dedicated to telling some of the stories of the Underground Railroad. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center sits on the bank of the Ohio River, where runaway slaves once took their first steps as free men and women.

Instructional Links

Website: History.Com: Definition of the Underground Railroad

http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/underground-railroad

Government Agency: National Park Service: Underground Railroad Terminology

http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/discover_history/terminology.htm

Museum: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

http://www.freedomcenter.org/

Government Agency: National Park Service: Links to Underground Railroad Sites in Ohio

http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/states.htm

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